Hopefully we'll be hearing a lot from "triple threat" talent composer, lyricist, and book writer Timothy Huang in the next few years. Though his new musical And the Earth Moved, a funny yet touching show about cultural identity and the search for meaning in life, is a work that still needs some polishing and trimming, Huang brings a distinctive new voice to musical theater that makes you sit up and pay attention.
Though some critics will undoubtedly describe in profuse detail that And the Earth Moved is an "Asian American musical" as most of the show's cast, creators, and plot elements are Asian American, it's more important to recognize the significant contribution that this show makes to the ever-widening and inclusive definition of what constitutes the American musical. Indeed, Huang's show with its quirky sense of humor and odd-ball yet moving characters often reminded me of William Finn's work, particularly A New Brain, more than say Rodgers and Hammerstein's now dated musical Flower Drum Song.
Huang's show centers on Will Chen (Thomas C. Kouo), a young Taiwanese American jingle writer living in New York, who is frustrated by his nagging Taiwanese parents (played to hilarious perfection by Erin Quill and Orville Mendoza). Not particularly happy that Will has a white girlfriend, Jane (the golden-throated Lisa Howard), his parents continually pester him via telephone about his love life, his lack of a good career, and the fact that he has yet to make arrangements for their upcoming Thanksgiving visit. Shortly after one such phone call, Will learns that a deadly earthquake has struck Taiwan, and suddenly his life is thrown into disarray as he wonders if his parents are still alive.
So begins the show's main adventure as Will wanders the streets of New York (smartly evoked with slide projections by Jennifer Varbalow) searching for meaning and stability amid his life's chaotic uncertainty. Will soon finds himself lost, not just physically, but emotionally as well, trying to figure out how to reconcile his Asian roots with his American identity. Meeting up with a mysterious young woman named Jenny (Constance Wu), the two find themselves involved in a series of wacky encounters: they get held up at gun point in a Korean grocery store by a man in a Barney costume, mobbed by a Chinese gospel choir in Harlem, and in the show's funniest scene, trapped in Wan Fat Chow's, a Chinese restaurant known bizarrely for its "Clown Waiters" and "Sesame Chicken."
Insofar as this show is partially about making peace with one's cultural roots and identity, Huang uses his terrific sense of humor to send up a bevy of Asian stereotypes from the Korean grocery store clerk, cleverly named Dill Gent Lee (a crowd-pleasing Steven Eng), to hard-to-understand, impolite Chinese waiters. Similarly, while at Wan Fat Chow's, Will and Jenny get caught up in a satiric wedding ceremony (staged as nightclub floor-show entertainment) in which a crazy M. Butterfly-like drag queen (Brian Cooper), complete with a cracking fan straight out of the recent revival of Flower Drum Song, leads the cast in an immensely entertaining number that pokes fun at Asian gender and sexual stereotypes from musical theater. Though the sequence doesn't really advance the story much, it's such an over-the-top inventive production number as staged by director/choreographer Nina Zoie Lam, who parodies shows including Chicago and Miss Saigon, that you don't really care how irrelevant it is.
Huang knows how to land the jokes, poking fun at Caucasians and Asians alike, but he also knows how to write with lyrical beauty. His songs reveal poignant sentiments such as Will's sense of childhood nostalgia and longing that he expresses in "My Monkey and Me," the beautiful story song that opens act two. The pieces of And the Earth Moved, though, are significantly greater than the whole. Clearly talent abounds in the show's cast and creative team, but the overall structure of the show is uneven, often dragging too much, particularly in the soul-searching ballad-heavy second act. Indeed, the central conceit of a character looking for meaning in his life is too non-specific and flimsy of a plot to sufficiently hold the show together. This two-hour musical with an intermission could easily be trimmed to a tight and lean hour and a half one act.
With one exception, Huang's show is well served by a talented cast (and how refreshing to see Asian American actors being given funny and juicy roles for once!) The musical is custom-built for character actors, and the large cast is packed with individuals who have a knack for comedy. Kristi Tomooka is riotous as a TV reporter who continually interrupts her news reports to comment on the foibles of Will's life. As Sister Deborah, the lead gospel singer of The First Pentecostal Church of Harlem, Melanie May Po shakes the roof with her impressive and soulful vocals. Constance Wu offers a sweet and engaging performance as Jenny, Will's vagabond sidekick. If there is one link weak in the equation, sadly it is Thomas Kouo as leading man Will. Though his voice and acting are decent enough, Kouo lacks the intensity and gravitas that this major role requires. Though able to carry off the ranginess of Huang's music, Kouo's voice was often not loud enough to be heard over the show's single piano.
And the Earth Moved might not be the most perfectly written show, but it offers so many delights for its audience that it is definitely worth seeing. Hopefully Huang's show will encourage other minority musical theater creators to write, bringing new perspectives and stories to the very white world of musical theater.
New York Musical Theatre Festival